Harvard Business Review is wrong on workplace collaboration

How a prestigious publication reinterprets the meaning of workplace collaboration to fit research findings

In the latest edition of Harvard Business Review in an article titled Collaborative Overload, academics Rob Cross, Reb Rebel, and Adam Grant dedicate over 2,000 words to the dangers posed by workplace collaboration.  

As a practitioner of workplace collaboration for the Project Management before the term even existed, it is clear that the considerable research into the topic was misdirected. 

Perhaps because the workplace collaboration is so widely accepted and expected today, the HBR authors chose the holy grail of productivity as their link bait.

(Full disclosure:  I attended MIT in the 1980’s but institutional rivalry plays no part in my analysis.)

I’d like to give a few examples of how the article’s authors misapplied the collaboration label and instead of identifying real danger, simply reviewed well-worn themes of employee productivity, time management, communication styles and setting boundaries. 

These are all valid issues, but unfortunately not closely enough related to the topic of the workspace collaboration to justify the article’s bold title.

Let me start with what the authors actually got right:

At many companies, workers spend approximately 80% of their workday attending meetings or answering requests from colleagues and not enough time on critical tasks that need to be self-completed.

Productivity suffers from the “avalanche of demands for input or advice, access to resources, or sometimes just presence in a meeting”

(As a side note, when I started my career as an engineer with one of the best high tech companies in the Boston area, meetings were kept brief and focused by placing ½ hour limits and instituting a no-chair policy for conference rooms.)

Some employees do not know how or when to say no and take on too much of their colleague’s workload. 

This can affect their own performance levels. Not everyone is good at managing their time and this can lead to burnout.  As a result, management needs to plan more carefully.

Being that HBR is HBR, the article is backed by extensive research and fun facts such as 3% to 5% of a company’s employees are responsible for between 20% to 35% of “value-added collaborations.”

I was also interested to learn that Corning bases promotion to its prestigious research fellow position using collaboration-linked criterion.

Although I cannot find anything flawed about the facts that this article presents, even on a slow news night, they don’t make it to the front page.

But that’s not really my complaint.

By conflating “collaboration” and “communication”, the authors get to attack the Sacred Cow of the corporate workplace collaboration. The workplace collaboration is to a business what the Kardashian clan is to reality TV – a gateway to profitability using the most talented resources optimally.

What does Collaboration mean?  True collaboration in the workplace is not about answering emails, mentoring colleagues or helping team members complete an assignment. 

It’s about working together to solve a problem or create something new.  In my field of Collaborative Project Management, it’s about tapping into the deep knowledge of network or team in order to achieve a common objective.

So HBR next time you write an article about time wasting employee practices or how over-communicating can be detrimental to productivity, please remember that Collaboration in the workplace is not the problem or even the solution – it’s simply the mechanism used by organizations to maximize the value from their most reliable and unappreciated asset: the talents of their employees.


David Robins


David Robins is the founder and CEO of Binfire. David studied at both Cornell and MIT, and was the Director of Software Engineering at Polaroid for 11 years.

  1. Hi David, I agree with you. Collaboration comes from an underlying essence of shared understanding to achieve common goals. It is a way in which organizations can utilize the most important talented asset, its employees. But, collaboration can also take up many forms. The widespread use of technology has ushered in innovative ways for communication and interaction. The bottom line again as you rightly said, is to look at profitability and results through this mechanism. Nice post, Enjoyed reading it. Cheers, Ramkumar

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